Today, most mobile devices, mp3 players and tablets come standard with a basic pair of earphones and at one point or another, most of us actually use them.
More people are purchasing their music and videos in digital file formats today than they are buying hardcopies of their favorite albums, television shows or movies.
No longer are we limited to watching movies on our TV or listening to music over a stereo system. Even when we choose to watch or listen to those formats, we still have the option, in most cases, of listening to the audio privately via headphones or earphones.
While they were previously just an accessory that some men wore when listening to their WalkMan or DiscMan, today, headphones are a staple that virtually everyone under the age of fifty use on a frequent basis.
The History of Headphones
Believe it or not, headphones actually originated out of the earpieces which were originally used before amplifiers were invented to listen to electrical audio signals. Created in 1910 by a man named Nathaniel Baldwin, the pair he first invented in his kitchen subsequently sold to the US Navy. Within ten years, headphone earpieces were commonly used in radio.
Not only were the first pairs of headphones uncomfortable, but they also proved very dangerous for the wearer as they were of extremely high voltage and often resulted in shock to the user when trying to adjust them.
It wasn’t until the early 1940s, when John Koss, a jazz musician, created the first stereo headphones. Prior to this time, the only headphones in use, despite being commonplace in industry, were worn by telephone operators and those who needed to listen to various radio communication systems.
Since the invention of the stereo headphones in 1943, it has become a booming industry and has seen some impressive developments. Today there are many styles and types of headphones and earphones both corded and wireless.
Types of Headphones
Stereo headphones are primarily used today by two groups of individuals: amateur music enthusiasts and professionals in the music and film industry.
While wired headphones are still around and generally come standard with new devices, one of the most popular after-market headphones and earphones for sale are wireless which rely on a radio or infrared signal like Bluetooth and Wifi.
Headphones feature an earpiece that covers the ear and is connected with a band that clamps gently over the top of the skull. Earphones on the other hand are smaller in design and feature buds that sit snugly inside the opening of the ear canal. While the earphone style is most popular with amateur music listeners, headphones are commonplace in the professional sector with sound engineers and disc jockeys who rely on them to do their jobs.
For those who still prefer wired headphones, or simply utilize the free pair that comes with their electronic devices, the standard wire features common universal connectors that are referred to as 6.35 mm and 3.5 mm. The larger connectors are typically used in professional recording environments or older stereo systems whereas the smaller variant is common for all other listening apparatus such as the iPod, most smartphones and the majority of tablets and computers.
The size of the headphones can be a major contributor to the balance between fidelity and portability. In most cases, it divides them into four categories: supra-aural, earbud, in-ear and circumaural.
Supra-aural headphones are the kind with comfort pads that sit against the side of the ear but don’t cup them. They’re smaller in size than that of circumaural headphones which results in less attenuation of external noise. Unfortunately, they can also result in some significant discomfort due to the pressure on the ear when compared to circumaural headphones that cup the entire ear.
Depending on what kind of sound you want to hear, both of these styles come in open-back with the rear of the ear cups open which allows for ambient soundstage style sound. They also come in sealed back which gives the wearer the perception that the sound is coming from inside their head.
For those wanting a balance, there are semi-open headphones as well. It really comes down to the experience that the user is looking for.
Circumaural headphones as opposed to supra-aural feature large comfort pads that cup the entire ear. Often, these are simply referred to in-store as full sized headphones. Since they are much larger, they also tend to weigh more resulting in a bulkier appearance and, in some cases, neck discomfort. However, these are typically the most comfortable styles for the ears. They’re my favorite style.
Earphones on the other hand, which are also called earbuds are the smallest headphones that fit directly inside the outer ear without protruding into the canal. They’re the most portable and less expensive, often coming as a complimentary accessory with personal electronics. Despite their popularity, they are actually the least comfortable and provide very little acoustic isolation. This causes the wearer to turn the volume up to dangerous levels which is a major source of hearing loss. Aside from this, one of the major drawbacks is that the less expensive, or free pairs have a habit of falling out. Companies such as Apple have attempted to redesign their earphones but they’re still less comfortable than the larger headphones.
In-ear headphones, unlike earphones actually protrude into the ear canal, rather than just facing it. It provides more protection from outside noise and are often used as a compact and lightweight alternative for professional audio specialists and musicians. Since they fit directly into the ear canal, they aren’t as likely to fall out or dislodge like the standard earbuds. However, they have resulted in serious accidents as they block out more external noise which many users don’t take into account. This is particularly dangerous for those who are operating motor vehicles or walking and riding in high traffic or hazardous areas. Most of the standard in-ear headphones come with a selection of rubber plugs intended for the user to select the one that fits best into their ear. More expensive pairs also sometimes offer custom plugs that are molded for the individual user.
For those wanting to be completely absorbed by the music and not ambient noise, the best options for passive noise isolation is to purchase in-ear headphones or closed-back headphones which provided the highest attenuation levels. When we compare typical retail headphones, the closed-back version blocks anywhere between 8 and 12 dB and the in-ear version blocks 10 to 15 dB. There are higher priced models that are designed for use by musicians that purport to reduce external noise by up to 25 dB but I’ve never tested one of these pairs.
If passive noise cancelation isn’t enough, there is always the option of active noise-canceling headphones which utilize a compact microphone, speaker and amplifier to pick up, amplify and play ambient noise in phase-reversed form. What this does is cancels noise from outside the earpiece without affecting the sound of what you’re listening to. Since these types require a significant battery source, they are usually more expensive and require regular charging or battery changes.
Benefits of Headphones
The biggest benefit of headphones is privacy and the ability to prevent or limit outside sources from hearing what you’re listening to. Hands down, this is the most common reason for wearing headphones.
Headphones allow the user to be able to listen to audio they want without having to worry about offensive material or disturbing others in public places such as libraries, public transportation or even in an office environment.
In addition, headphones offer video game players the ability to better judge the position of sounds coming from off-screen. This is particularly useful for first person shooter games such as Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto.
Drawbacks of Headphones
The biggest limitation or risk of using headphones is of course personal safety. Those wearing headphones are significantly impervious to outside noise which can act as an alarm in the case of danger. There have been many cases of people being struck by moving objects such as cars because they weren’t paying attention or didn’t hear horns or the sound of skidding tires. In addition, there have been times where people have been caught in dangerous situations because they couldn’t hear the sound of debris falling, people warning them verbally or even fire alarms in public buildings and private homes.
There are also risks for others. Since the invention of the Walkman, there have been many cases of children being injured or killed because their guardian was wearing headphones and didn’t hear them call for help. This can be particularly dangerous for those responsible for young children incapable of walking or escaping danger on their own accord.
Finally, there are serious concerns with the volume levels that many headphone users continually operate their sound at. Headphones have increasingly become a considerable cause of both temporary and permanent hearing loss. Experts suggest that less than 5% of all headphone users listen at appropriate volume levels. Since most headphone users tend to wear headphones when in public, they also tend to turn the volume up louder than they normally would to prevent ambient noise from penetrating the earpiece.
One further risk is that many users tend to wear headphones during exercise which can increase their chance of risking hearing loss compared to when listening while the body is at rest. Experts recommend only listening for half hour intervals while engaging in any strenuous activity.
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There are many headphones available on the market today at various price points from just a few dollars upwards of thousands. While many people opt to simply use the free earbuds that came with their smartphone, other audiophiles choose to purchase aftermarket, higher quality headphones.
Click here to learn more about these headphones.
AKG Pro Audio K812PRO Superior Reference Headphones – $1,199.00
You may remember these headphones after we featured them in our Holiday Gift Guide. AKG makes some of the most superlative headphones on the market that offers the highest quality sound you’ll possibly ever hear while exterminating ambient noise. If you are one of those people who want or need the best quality headphones on the market than these are for you. The feature exceptional 53mm transducers with an open-back technology that reduces reflection for naturally accurate sound with a powerful music listening experience. They’re ideal for both the professional sound engineer but also the audiophile listening to his beats on the way to work. One should note, that with most good headphones, you won’t experience anything close to high quality sound until you’ve broken them in which usually takes about 24 hours of audio playback. Once they are broken in though, you’ll never buy another pair of headphones. Simply because no other will compare. Click here to buy a pair of these AKG headphones now. Of course, AKG also has a number of other headphones on the market beginning at a much lower price point under $200.
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Audeze LCD-3 Headphones – From $2,600
The flagship headphones of world-renowned Audeze, the LCD-3 provides the listener with an experience like no other. The sound is rich and spacious with an ultra-realism factor you need to hear to believe. For those looking for one of the best pairs of headphones in the world, there is no substitute. Buy them here.
Stax SR-009 – $3,600
Although we have never heard these high-end electrostatic headphones from Japan, some connoisseurs swear by them. At $3600 for a pair of headphones they are definitely only for the serious audiophile with enough change.
Koss PortaPro Headphones – $40
If you’re looking for a well constructed piece of audio machinery at an exceptionally reasonable price, it’s time to check out a brand named Koss. The company has been making headphones for more then 50 years, which explains why they’re so good at what they do. They produce some of the best high fidelity headphones at remarkable prices. Granted, you can easily find cheaper headphones in store, but they’re just that – cheap. Koss will give you an experience that even the most discerning music lover will respect and appreciate. You can buy them here.
Sennheiser HD 800 Over-Ear Circum-Aural Dynamic Headphones – $1,500
German headphone manufacturer, Sennheiser, offers one of the widest ranges of headphones starting at right around $30 and moving upwards of thousands. With Sennheiser, regardless of the price you pay, you’re getting a really exemplary package. In business for almost 70 years, Sennheiser is synonymous with high fidelity. When it comes to highly discerning audiophiles, these Sennheiser HD 800 Over-Ear Circum-Aural Dynamic Headphones are state-of-the-art and showcase it through it’s powerful sound.
With ongoing debate between electronic reproduction and natural sound, these headphones are specifically engineered to replicate natural hearing with dynamic acoustics. Using an advanced driver technology, the circum-aural headphones redefine what it means to listen to your music. We highly recommend these headphones and you can get your pair by clicking here.
Or, if you’re looking for noise-canceling headphones at a lower price, these ones from Sennheiser are remarkably efficient and only cost $200. You can buy them on sale here.
Bowers & Wilkins P5 Headphones – $300
Bowers & Wilkins has long enjoyed a stellar reputation of being one of the most iconic and well respected audio companies in the world. At just $300, these headphones are designed for pristine sound and luxurious comfort. Rather than going with the flow, Bowers & Wilkins uses soft sheep’s leather to provide users ears with an almost pillow-like cushion for their ears. Music quality is maintained through the use of linear neodymium magnets and highly optimized Mylar diaphragms and they back up their claims with a standard 2-year warranty. Buy them here.
Sennheiser HD 650 – $330
Fantastic sounding headphones that provide great value for the money. However, they are only suited to people who are ok with open headphones. If you are in a noisy environment or if you do not want others to hear any of your music? these are not for you. Also, some people have complained about the wire quality. I have never owned one long enough to experience it myself, but you should be aware of that fact. Get them here.
Bose Quiet Comfort 25 Headphones – $300
There aren’t many companies as well known as Bose when it comes to high quality sound. Bose has done for music what IMAX has done for film and their products are often considered some of the very best by non-professional, average consumers. Slightly overpriced in our opinion, they’re still no where close to the price of Beats By Dre, but feature a quality of sound that gets audiophiles buzzing. Well known for their ability to protect the wearer from ambient sound, Bose headphones are worthy of considering when you’re looking for that famous household name and a great, but slightly more expensive, pair of headphones. Buy them here.
AKG K550 Closed-Back Reference Class Headphones – $190
Once you have these headphones burned in (which takes about 15 hours), you have a comfortable, balanced and excellent sounding pair of headphones for under $200. They work particularly well for people with large ears and a favorite of Sven Raphael Schneider.
Panasonic In-Ear Headphones – $10
For really entry-level headphones that are still better than your Apple EarPods, try these in-ear headphones from Panasonic. At just $10 you can’t go wrong and they can often be found on sale. They work with any portable mp3 player, phone or tablet and come standard with a one year warranty. Buy them here.
PSB M4U 2 Active Noise Canceling Headphones – $400
With their padded ear cups, and active noise canceling technology, these headphones from PSB are idea for those seeking complete audio engagement with no outside interference. The active listening mode uses a built-in amplifier for the most powerfully precise audio you can get. Thanks to an in-line remote microphone, the headphones also feature portable hands-free operation with a range of Apple products including the iPod, iPhone and iPad. You can buy them here.
The Look of Headphones
Gentleman’s Gazette reader and vintage clothes lover Ingemar from Sweden makes a valid point: Sound Quality is not all that counts! These headphones are made with Harris Tweed by UrbanEars.
Music is life for many of us and a way to express, motivate and even relax ourselves. Owning a well constructed pair of quality headphones is something I would personally recommend to any listener that would use them on a regular basis. It’s money well spent in my opinion. What’s your favorite pair of headphones?
Special thank you to sound expert Callum Gaudet – Recording Engineer, Halifax, Nova Scotia for his assistance with this article.